In the Autumn 2021 Marlowe Society Newsletter, Christian Taylor commented about 1593 – the year of Marlowe’s disappearance in Deptford – describing Calvin Hoffman as an “eccentric American investigator Calvin Hoffman (1906- 1986) (who) would later claim that Marlowe not only survived his own death, but was whisked away to Italy whence he would send manuscripts to his beloved Tom Walsingham, who had them copied out by his own scrivener and then sent on to London for staging and publication”. This account was based on Hoffman’s book The Man Who Was Shakespeare (Max Parrish, London 1955).
Such a short sketch does not do justice to the work of a man who has played a considerable part in the history of Marlowe studies. While both his theory and the prize have proved controversial and have kept Hoffman’s reputation as a thinker open to the charge of eccentricity, his legacy is important for Marlowe studies – through the Hoffman prize – providing a continuing role in stimulating debate. In this essay I will leave the wider issues pending, to focus on his theory to explain why the book remains an important part of the history of the controversies around Marlowe.
The nature of the theory
The title of the book rather curiously does not mention Marlowe, perhaps deliberately using the name of the man from Stratford to attract attention. Marlowe was a relatively new entry into the debate on candidates who could plausibly rival Shakespeare of Stratford as the author- the Alternative Author controversy.. Hoffman opens by discussing the underlying issues of why Shakespeare’s Authorship is open to debate. Indeed, the first five pages of the Author’s Preface do not mention Marlowe’s name and merely outline the rise of scepticism over the claims for William Shakespeare as a writer.
Hoffman then makes the statement that ‘for the first time the name of the poet dramatist is put forth as the sole author of Shakespeare’s works” (p14)- meaning Marlowe. Hoffman accepts precursors – he notes that in 1895 W G Zeigler wrote a fictional essay in which Marlowe survived the alleged killing in Deptford (to be killed by Ben Jonson!) then in 1923 ‘one Archie Webster claims Marlowe wrote the Sonnets, (published in the National Review (vol LXXXII pp81-86 September 1923) TF) followed in1931 by Gilbert Slater who in his book Seven Shakespeares advanced the theory that Marlowe was one of a team’, (pp14-15) but Hoffman does not see these as arguing for Marlowe as a contender for writing the works of Shakespeare, the claim he makes for his own work.
Hoffman may not be the first person to argue Marlowe was the prime contender for Shakespearian authorship. However the prime issue is the argument he advances for Marlowe. The Preface explains that Hoffman began his research in late 1936, reading a mass of Elizabethan drama, concluding Shakespeare and Marlowe shared a common style when compared to contemporary dramatists, and wondering if they were one person. He began to consider “was the report of Marlowe’s assassination true?” (p18), as the obvious block to considering Marlowe and Shakespeare were one writer, was the view Marlowe died in 1593. Shakespearian works appeared into the Stuart period. If Marlowe died when most of the work was yet to be written, he could not be the author. There is compelling evidence the Shakespearian corpus could not have been written by 1593 – the film Anonymous, arguing for the Earl of Oxford as the author and as he died in 1604 claimed that he wrote the work and left it in a metal box. Best leave that kind of theory to Hollywood.
Officially Marlowe passed after being stabbed, an inquest returning a verdict of lawful killing. The coroner’s report was discovered by American historian J Leslie Hotson and he published the report in 1925 There is a current of historical thinking that never accepted the verdict, believing Marlowe was murdered but both this and the conventional view believe Marlowe died on May 30th. Hoffman also thought the events in Deptford involved murder, but that Marlowe survived. An innocent passerby was murdered to allow Marlowe to vanish from an impending crisis. Hoffman develops an account of events in which Marlowe survived and was exiled to Italy, sending his work to his patron Thomas Walsingham to stage in London.
The first chapter What do we know about Shakespeare? is short, advancing the thesis that we do not know very much. The argument recapitulates familiar features of the Authorship controversy, rehearsing the lack of knowledge about the early years of the man from Stratford, highlighting his lack of education, cultural capital, and extra-curricular activities. Lacking education and cultural skills, Shakespeare married an older woman at 18 and had to support a wife and three children by the age of 21. He then vanished till the long poem Venus and Adonis appeared in the summer of 1593. Hoffman concluded there is no evidence of the development of the cultural capital needed to produce the work which then appears under his name.
Chapter Two looks at the evidence provided by the title pages of those works carrying Shakespeare’s name, arguing the printed name is not sufficient evidence of authorship. For Hoffman the key issue is that no contemporary writing identifies the writer with the actor born in Stratford. Hoffman sets out the view that evidence of his written activities are limited to business dealings in Stratford after returning from London, Chapter Three looks at the limited contemporary biographical work that has survived, including the critical commentary on the writers of the age by Robert Greene- published in 1592, and the writing of Henry Chettle which has been assumed to be a gloss on Greene’s comments. Hoffman concludes that there is no conclusive evidence Shakespeare was a creative writer. Hoffman then turns to Marlowe.
In Chapter Four, Hoffman outlines Marlowe’s early life and education, focussing on the highly significant letter from the Privy Council ordering Cambridge University to award his MA. But Hoffman is inconsistent. The letter mentions there was a belief Marlowe had gone to Rheims – which suggests he visited the Catholic seminary – but Hoffman cites the Councillor’s statement that Marlowe “had no such intent” (P61). Immediately on the following page he contradicts this, stating Marlowe had made “trips to Rheims” – and in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, the spycatcher. Hoffman misses the significant fact that Francis Walsingham though a leading member of the Queen’s Privy Council did NOT sign the letter.
Hoffman tends to cut corners, and by omitting the list of signatories misses the absence of the spycatcher. Lord Burghley, who did sign the letter, would be a constant through the rest of Marlowe’s life, but Hoffman prioritises Francis Walsingham, in part to focus on his cousin Thomas, who unlike Francis undoubtedly knew Marlowe though he was a very different personage. Francis died in 1590.